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Americans in Paris, 1860–1900

The actor Charles Turner reads amusing descriptions of Parisian daily life by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), the first African American artist to achieve international acclaim.


Charles Turner: "How strange the city of Paris was, how different the sounds that came to my aerie from those in any other city I had ever been in! The clatter of the wooden shoes on the stone pavement, the cries, the whistles, the horns blown, the songs sung, each with its particular meaning, but to me an incomprehensible din."

So wrote Henry Ossawa Tanner of his first days in Paris in 1891. Like hundreds of American artists in the late nineteenth century, Tanner was drawn irresistibly to the world's new art capital, where he learned to paint and established his reputation. His original intention was to pass through Paris on his way to study in Rome. But he was so taken with the sounds and stimulation of Paris that he abandoned his plan and stayed on to study there. In his new city, he settled into an unheated basement studio on the rue de Seine. So much was unfamiliar to him each day, beginning with breakfast, a meal he would often have at a local café along the walk to class at the Académie Julian. He later recalled:

"Breakfast meant to me beefsteak or mutton chops, fried potatoes, hot griddle-cakes, etc., but here not for love nor money could it be had. Breakfast for people who were up betimes, as I was, was a cup of milk or coffee, with a roll, or a sou's worth of bread, eaten in a drafty doorway. Afterwards I found a dimly lighted little café where it was warm, and where many students, on their way to Julian's, stopped. Even in this café, it would have been such a job to have gotten a couple of eggs that one soon abandoned the struggle. Like thousands of others in almost all other respects, it had across its door in large letters the words "English spoken." It was kept by a sunny-faced, middle-aged French woman from Alsace—one of those comfortable kind whose waistline had long ago ceased to exist, but whose heart was as warm as the steaming beverage she served. Asked one day who it was that spoke the English she so largely advertised, she replied with a merry laugh, 'Oh, it's you, and you, and you, Messieurs, my clients, who speak English here.'

"The Académie Julian! Never had I seen or heard such a bedlam, or men waste so much time. Of course, I had come to study at such a cost that every minute seemed precious and not to be frittered away. I had often seen rooms full of tobacco smoke, but not as here in a room never ventilated. And when I say never, I mean not rarely but never, during the five or six months of cold weather. Never were windows opened. They were nailed fast at the beginning of the cold season. Fifty or sixty men smoking in such a room for two or three hours would make it so that those on the back rows could hardly see the model."

Henry Ossawa Tanner knew early on that he wanted to be an artist. He was the oldest of seven surviving children of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop and a woman who was an important presence in the church. He grew up in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, teaching himself to draw by looking at the world around him. During the 1880s, he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with Thomas Eakins and Thomas Hovenden, and later opened a photography gallery and taught drawing in Atlanta. It was only after he had spent some time in Paris, as a student and then as a professional artist, that he became acquainted first-hand, quite by accident, with the most exciting and influential event in the art world: the Salon.

"As I now look back, it seems curious to me that I should have been able to arrive at thirty years of age with two years of that time in Paris and never to have heard of the Salon or, having heard of it, not to have at all realized its importance in the art world. Its discovery came to me in this manner: I had been to Dr. Thurber's church, and was on my way home when, near the Palais d'Industrie, I saw great crowds making their way into this building—which has now disappeared—such crowds as you might see going into Madison Square Garden to some great sporting event. To my question, it was 'Le Salon' and, to see for myself, I joined that good-natured throng. What a surprise awaited me in the court of that old palais! Hundreds of statues that appeared to me nearly all of them fairer than the Venus de Milo, and upstairs the paintings—thousands of them—and nearly all of them much more to my taste than were the old masters of the Louvre. Not that they were really as fine, but they were more within my range.

"Here was something to work for, to get a picture here. This now furnished a definite impetus to my work in Paris. To be able to make a picture that should be admitted here. Could I do it? The next summer I worked in Brittany at Concarneau, upon a picture of an apple orchard, which, at that time, despite my best efforts, was refused. Two years afterward, in 1895, it was accepted, but no impression was made. In fact, I was "over them all." You may remember how a son of a western farmer came to study art in New York. He finally had a picture in the Academy, and the proud father came to see the exhibition. Recounting what he had seen in New York to his friends in the west, he said 'Paintings all over the wall, everywhere, but Bob's picture, my boy's, was over them all.' So with mine, it was 'over them all,' it was 'skied.'

"In 1895, I painted Daniel in the Lions' Den. For this picture I modeled lions in the Jardin des Plantes and also worked in the summer class of Fremiet. Hoping to receive some help from him, I one day got up courage to show him a sketch of it. 'Well,' he said, 'It all depends upon how you develop what you have here suggested—if you do it well, it will be a good picture; and, if not, why, it will be a very ordinary one.'

"Thinking it over now, what could he say? Here was an unknown, untried student, and it was yet to be seen what he could do. It was exhibited in the Salon of 1896—and I received for it my first official recognition. True it was but a 'mention honorable,' but it was an honor. I could have all the confidence in myself possible. I could believe that I might do something someday, but the day I verified however small a part of that belief, that day was new hope given to me that I might also reach other daydreams which I would never have confessed even to my most intimate friend. So it was that this first little mention honorable gave me a courage and a power for hard work, and also a hope that I had never before possessed. It decided for me the question whether it was better to do a few things—one picture, for instance—and bring it to a fairly successful conclusion or to do many pictures, trusting to some chance that one of them would be better than any continued and more or less labored effort could be. This little honor did spur me on to greater efforts and these efforts were not completely unsuccessful. The only drag was, as it had always been, the everlasting question of money. A gentleman who had enabled me to gain a little by writing up art notes in Paris now withdrew this work because he thought I should come to America and paint American subjects. I refused to come home and paint things I was not drawn to."

Tanner did visit the United States frequently but never returned there to live. He exhibited at the Salon annually between 1894 and 1914, focused for many years on painting Biblical scenes, and traveled extensively in Europe and the Near East. He also painted intimate views of Paris that capture the spirit and mutable light of his adopted city. The first African-American artist to achieve international recognition, Tanner died in Paris in 1937.

This is Charles Turner and I have been reading excerpts from "The Story of an Artist's Life" by Henry Ossawa Tanner, which was published in The World's Work magazine in 1909.

The exhibition Americans in Paris, 1860–1900, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 28, 2007, features the work of Tanner and more than thirty other American artists.

The exhibition is made possible by Bank of America.

Additional support is provided by the Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund.

The exhibition was organized by The National Gallery, London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.This has been an Antenna Audio production.

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